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NIST Research Improves Firefighter Safety

Firefighters rely on self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA) to protect them from dangerous heat and toxic smoke. NIST research helped to improve industry standards for SCBA performance, leading to rapid improvements in the safety of the nation’s firefighters.

NIST fire researchers developed a new test method to evaluate the performance of the weakest part of SCBA—the face piece lens. By using realistic conditions, including high temperature and large changes in heat, NIST scientists were able to understand why SCBA lenses were failing to protect firefighters despite adhering to existing industry standards. NIST then helped develop a new test protocol that mimics realistic fire conditions. The test protocol has been incorporated into industry standards that help to ensure SCBA lenses protect the firefighters who depend on them.

NIST researchers tested SCBA thermal performance in the NIST laboratories and fires set in uniformly furnished, vacant townhomes. These experiments showed that certain temperature and heat flow conditions can cause SCBA lenses to bubble, soften and deform, sometimes leading to holes. Based on these results, the NIST team developed new tests and performance criteria that are more representative of the conditions of temperature, heat flux and duration that firefighters experience. 

NIST researchers worked with industry groups and public safety stakeholders to incorporate their findings and test methods into SCBA manufacturing standards. The National Fire Protection Association also issued an alert to over 32,000 U.S. fire departments warning of the vulnerability of the current SCBA lenses and recommended upgrading to the revised standard.